Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:
June 21, 2011 — Children who participate in preschool programs funded through the Virginia Preschool Initiative improve their performance in kindergarten and first grade, researchers at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education have found.
The study, conducted by senior scientist Francis Huang and Marcia Invernizzi, Henderson Professor of Education, is the first peer-reviewed analysis of the effectiveness of the Virginia Preschool Initiative program. Created in 1996, the program provides programs for at-risk 4-year-olds that include preschool education, health and social services, and transportation.
The study sought to address three questions: Does preschool attendance have a benefit for students upon kindergarten entry? Does this benefit vary by race/ethnicity? And does the early advantage seen in students who attend preschool diminish over time, a phenomenon known as "the fade-out effect"?
"We had thought that a study like this had been done in Virginia, but found that it had not been done on a large scale," Huang said. "And these questions needed to be answered, especially in a time when school budgets are tightening. While intuitively, people may feel that preschool is beneficial, the empirical evidence to support that was lacking."
The researchers evaluated a cohort of more than 60,000 students at 1,000 public schools across Virginia by following them from the beginning of kindergarten through the end of first grade. Of these students, approximately 11,000 attended a Virginia Preschool Initiative-funded program.
Students must be defined as "at-risk" to qualify for such a program, meaning they either live in poverty or are homeless, have health or developmental problems, do not speak English as a primary language, or have parents or guardians who have limited education, or are incarcerated or chronically ill.
Researchers found that students who attend Virginia Preschool Initiative-funded programs showed improved performances in kindergarten and first grade when compared to students who did not attend any form of preschool. Researchers also found that while a disproportionately high percentage of Hispanic and African-American children are represented in these groups, these improvements were even larger for African-American students and Hispanic students as well as children with disabilities.
Specifically, these students had stronger literacy outcomes than those who did not attend any type of preschool, and they had a reduced likelihood of repeating kindergarten.
"The fact that we can show that preschool is beneficial, especially to these at-risk children, is powerful," Invernizzi said. "Our findings add to the rationale for investing in early childhood education."
Virginia's total pre-kindergarten spending was approximately $59 million in 2009, according to a National Institute for Early Education Research report.
Regarding the fade-out effect, the level of the students' improved performance did diminish over the course of the two years. However, it did not disappear completely, despite the fact that Virginia Preschool Initiative-funded students attend schools with higher levels of poverty.
"A possible factor explaining the diminished improvements is that instead of the effects of preschool attendance fading out, other students catch up," Huang said.
A particularly at-risk demographic are Hispanic students. Thirty-eight percent of Hispanic children are not enrolled in any formal preschool, while that number hovers around 20 percent for all other racial and ethnic groups.
Preschools that target these and other at-risk populations provide lasting benefits for the students, the researchers found. "Our findings are a testament to the hard work and dedication of preschool educators in Virginia," Invernizzi said.